30 Days & Nellie Bly

I’m not sure how old I was when I first read about Nellie Bly–I must have been somewhere between 8 and 10–but I remember being really moved by her life story. Here was a woman who, in a time that few middle-class women worked outside the home, was a world-class journalist. I know that I was most impressed by the parts of the story that dealt with her going undercover on Blackwell’s Island to expose the inhumane treatment of the insane, and her work in a sweatshop. Her work led to real reforms in social and public policy, and I thought that was so cool.

I think Barbara Ehrenreich and Morgan Spurlock may be her modern-day descendents, in the kinds of work that they’re doing, but I don’t see them having the same affect in the social arena. I wonder what it is about our time that makes this muckraking so much less effective. Is it that there has been enough positive social change, so that the ‘bad’ conditions that they have to report just aren’t as compelling? I don’t really believe that.

Is it that, as a nation, we’ve become so dulled to other people’s reality (or lack of it), that all things real seem like fiction now? I wonder how much the Real World/Survivor/Big Brother types of programming have ripped the teeth out of real investigative reporting. If everyone has some kind of petty drama (as we see on those kinds of shows), how can we prioritize one person’s drama over another’s? If the (mostly) women that Ehrenreich works with in her crappy, minimum wage jobs as she researches Nickel & Dimed are having crisis after crisis, do they really deserve to be elevated over the contestants on the Amazing Race, who perservere over a new crisis every week? In some ways, Nellie is responsible for this craze, too, since she was one of the first women to engage in ‘stunt’ journalism (think around the world in 80 days).

I’m afraid that by making entertainment out of things that are really hard, that really matter–things like how does one live on the minimum wage–we risk devaluing that struggle. At one point in our history, our goal as a country was to make poor & working-class folks more like us (and by us, I mean white middle-class people). We wanted to give them stability and help them move toward being productive members of our society. We’ve changed our focus, and we’ve lost our way. Instead of figuring out how to level the playing field with social policy, we’ve decided that if we all just have a chance to win a million dollars, then it must be fair.


June 26, 2005. politically motivated.


  1. Grandma replied:

    Let’s hope that all who read Nickel & Dimed and see Morgan Spurlock’s shows/movies will be motivated to take action. Step One is getting the messages of injustice out there, and Step Two is becoming an activist and doing something to make changes.]

  2. Pat Kirby replied:

    Is it that there has been enough positive social change, so that the ‘bad’ conditions that they have to report just aren’t as compelling?

    [Shrugs] It does seem that most of us are led around by our noses by the media. The question is then, what leads the media? Ratings? For whatever reason, stories about bug-eyed runaway brides and Michael Jackson always seem to trump real news.

  3. landismom replied:

    Pat–yes, I agree. I can’t remember who was telling me that there were 1,000 reporters assigned to the Michael Jackson story, which is just crazy. I just don’t understand how these decisions get made.

  4. Dawn replied:

    very interesting point. I am guilty of being a through and through reality tv fan and never thought of it from that angle. thank you for the insight!

  5. Comfort Addict replied:

    Well said. You and I think about these things similarly. I blame what I call the conservative revolution (how’s that for an oxymoron?). In this movement, an actor who happened to be President (by far, his best performance) convinced a lot of basically middle-class people that they either were or soon would be rich. To stay or be so, though, they had to protect precious resources allocated to themselves from being redistributed. They were also convinced that anyone who wasn’t with them or couldn’t make it was either lazy or a communist. Things like sweatshops and incinerators are someone else’s problem — unless they are in your backyard.

  6. landismom replied:

    CA–yeah, in another generation I would’ve been seriously red-baited. Yet another thing to thank Ronnie for. So glad they named that airport after him!

  7. One year of BBSP « Bumblebee Sweet Potato replied:

    […] 4. 30 Days & Nellie Bly […]

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